Museum Exhibits: How to Take Advantage of a Teachable Moment when there is no Teacher

On July 12, 2010, in Nonformal education, by Nicole Lantz

If there is nobody teaching, can you still take advantage of a teachable moment? I’d venture to say yes. I’d even say that when it comes to a museum, you have to. The question is – how do you find them?

I like to sit for a few moments and watch the activity – the herds of students bustling through – listening to their excited buzz. I notice where they stop, what they skip, and perhaps most importantly, what they ask. I pay special attention to those who are free to move about as they please.

It’s amazing to me how appealing a closed door is to learners. In fact, instead of engaging with the perfectly wonderful exhibits, two students focus their attention on the freight elevator. Here we have it – a “teachable moment” without a teacher. We didn’t really plan for it and it’s not really on our agenda for museum goers, but it happens over and over again as class after class flows through.

I know you understand that it’s not about the elevator per se, but here is a quick brainstorm of some educational materials that could be developed for my example of the “teachable moment”:

  • The obvious one. On the bare wall next to a freight elevator, explain how elevators work. Give people levers and ropes to pull on and play with.
  • The Science Elevator Pitch. This is one of my favorites. Let people record them as they ride, listen to them, create them. Give them the parameters and a topic in science (e.g. Have them “pitch” photosynthesis).
  • Fill the walls with quotations about things in science and nature that go up and down (e.g. Everything from birds to tides to levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).
  • Food chain – show how the elevator represents going up and down a local food chain (e.g. Something with an issue attached to it – perhaps it is economically important, is affected by local development, or has social significance)

I know I always say that you have to start with your learning outcomes (which you do), but there is something to be said for looking around the walls, the doors, the cabinets – looking around the learning environment to see if there are any missed opportunities. Better yet, if it’s possible, plan for it and let the built environment be part of the learning environment. This is what’s happening at the Nova Scotia Community College’s Centre for the Built Environment where “the building itself will be a learning tool”. (See NSCC unveils its Centre for the Built Environment,

1 Response » to “Museum Exhibits: How to Take Advantage of a Teachable Moment when there is no Teacher”

  1. Elee Kirk says:

    As a museum educator and researcher, I very much agree that a lot of what goes on for students in museums is not connected directly to the exhibits. Also that plenty of this involves learning or the potential for learning. I also really like the idea of watching what visitors of all ages are interested in, and then tweaking the museum to take account of these things.

    But I also think that museums would need to do this with a light touch. Within many museums (particularly science museums) there is often an over-abundance of information – signs and graphics with bright colours and lots of text. It could be that students are attracted to certain parts of the building precisely because there is no extra information – it gives them a bit of mental ‘down time’.

    It’s really important to see the whole museum – exhibitions, building, furniture and all – as being able to enhance and inhibit learning. Done cleverly, this will allow for moments of intense, playful and meaningful learning, as well as moments of quiet and reflection. A good teacher or museum educator, building on experience and observation, will be able to spot the potential for these moments and build on them to allow learners to get the most from the museum. But sometimes the enthusiasm for ever more teaching opportunities must be tempered to allow visitors to enjoy the museum at their own pace.

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